Despite positive steps for safety in the built environment, crucial areas are still being overlooked. Jo Thornicroft explores the role of intumescent paint in fire safety and why a regulatory body is needed 

Jo Thornicroft b+w

Jo Thornicroft, managing director at ORS

The Grenfell tragedy of June 2017, and the subsequent release of the Hackitt Report, have driven important learnings for the construction industry.

While the new regulatory framework for multi-occupancy residential and institutional residential buildings represents positive steps for safety in the built environment, crucial areas are still being overlooked regarding fire safety.

Despite being an important structural requirement, there are still no regulations or advanced qualifications required for intumescent paint application, which can give occupants up to 120 additional minutes to evacuate a building in the event of a fire.

Despite recommendations in the Hackitt Report for more testing of products and systems, and calls for safety requirements to be protected from cost-saving processes, the industry surrounding intumescent paint remains problematic.

The lack of governance around intumescent paint application has long been an issue, and the situation worsened through the pandemic. 

Many tradespeople looked to upskill and the basic NVQ and other low-level courses available for spray painting saw an increase in take-up. The rise in demand for spray painting UPVC windows was also likely a driver for many people purchasing basic paint spraying equipment without having experience with intumescent products.

Not only can this inexperience compromise the efficacy of the application and the safety of building occupants, it can be unsafe for the user.

Architects and structural engineers will typically specify a required additional time requirement pre-construction but there is no guarantee that this will be delivered. Subcontractors will often get costs and specifications from a range of manufacturers – as long as they purchase the type and quantity of the product outlined by their chosen manufacturer, they will generally be issued the certification to say the job has been done correctly. This happens without the manufacturer attending the site to carry out checks.

The industry is heavily cost-driven, with uninformed quotes setting unrealistic expectations. For the most extreme cases of fire coating requirement, manufacturers can specify up to 4,000 microns of thickness in a given area – requiring up to five coats to be effectively applied. Unfortunately, estimators often quote based on just one coat and this may not be realised until it is too late, leading to cut corners.

The applicator must be experienced and thorough enough to carry out their due diligence, ensuring the required thicknesses are achieved to give the steel the essential additional protection it needs. Lack of knowledge and consistency has consequences – incorrect applications can fail the coating, meaning the escape window isn’t guaranteed and the safety of building occupants is compromised.

The lack of governance around intumescent paint application has long been an issue

Adhesion can fail if incorrectly applied, but this won’t be seen or known. In most cases, once the intumescent has been applied, it’s rarely inspected and can be covered up easily. Issues with intumescent paint application are only likely to be investigated once the damage is done, by which point, it’s too late.

Incorrect or delayed application of intumescent carries significant repercussions for programme timeframes, as no further work can be carried out until this stage has been completed.

During the programme phase, there needs to be conversations about intumescent requirements, allowing for a clear understanding of the timeline, priming requirements and steps post-application.

Overwhelmingly, there must be more incentive for subcontractors to carry out jobs properly with the correct skills, planning and processes. Currently, quality contractors working with the product properly are being penalised in favour of those who will tick the necessary boxes and carry out the job for a better price, giving the main contractor more margin. The only way that the necessary governance will be introduced and implemented is with the introduction of an external, unbiased inspectorate or body that will ensure jobs are completed to the right specifications and standards.

Intumescent coatings are just one of the important parts of the puzzle that contribute to building safety. However, when applied properly and to the required specification, they can be a powerful differentiator in protecting human life in the event of a fire.

The industry cannot afford to overlook this, and definitive measures must be introduced to ensure that developers and contractors don’t stand to gain from cutting corners. Until a proper regulatory body is introduced, building safety will be compromised.